ITHACA, N.Y.—The City of Ithaca’s Department of Public Works (DPW) may soon be forced to sub out to private waste removal companies like Casella Waste Systems, a Vermont-based company, due to staffing issues.

At the City of Ithaca’s third budget meeting in October, the City of Ithaca’s Common Council heard from Superintendent of Public Works Mike Thorne about the many large projects occupying the staff at the DPW over the next few months: a water/sewer main replacement on Meadow Street, pumping station repairs and other seasonal repairs that come up. (The full meeting can be watched here.)

The department is down 30 employees currently, according to Thorne. Two recently left DPW for positions at New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG) that pay higher wages, and another heavy equipment operator is about to leave the city to take a job with the Town of Ithaca.

“That goes all across the board at DPW,” Thorne said. “We are struggling, right now, to keep our head above water.”

He added that the engineering department is down two positions, streets and facilities roster is down about 15 positions, and the water and sewer roster is down about 12 positions.

Due to the general lack of staff and trouble recruiting, the DPW has been having conversations with Casella about whether it would be able to fill in for the city if needed. “We have to provide these critical services, we can’t shut down the wastewater treatment plant, we can’t stop picking up garbage,” Thorne said. “If we don’t have staff, we have to look at other options that really we’d rather not be looking at.”

City of Ithaca Acting Assistant Superintendent of Water and Sewer Scott Gibson said that several positions are also intentionally not being filled in an effort to not increase the city’s budget even though they would help “balance the [wastewater] plant out.”

During general discussion of the department, Alderperson Phoebe Brown asked about the percentage of people of color employed at the DPW, “there was a concern for people of color who worked at some of your facilities not feeling welcome and not staying very long.”

Thorne responded saying that DPW had let Black Hands Universal know what positions were open, though the department “hasn’t received many of those applications. It is very important to us.”

Alderperson George McGonigal said that, anecdotally, he’d heard from DPW staff that “morale could be better” and that other employees were leaving because of noncompetitive wages at the facility compared to elsewhere.

On the front of competitive wages, Alderperson Cynthia Brock said that the upcoming compensation study will help the city understand what contracts need to be negotiated with various unions so that wages can be increased — though substantial wage increases would, most likely, need to be phased in over time so the city can afford it.

In the past, rollouts of substantial wage increases have taken three to five years, according to Brock.

Another project the department wants to tackle is replacing all the water meters within the city. Thorne said that the existing water meters are starting to fail, and a quarter of the 5,700 in the city are not measuring accurately.

The meters that will be introduced over the next couple of years are cloud-based and provide much more accurate readings, including the ability to almost instantly catch leaks with a once-a-day check-in from an antenna, according to Deputy Controller Scott Andrew.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...